Comparing Reviews of Gotham and The Island at the Center of the World

October 10, 2018 |  Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Comparing Reviews of Gotham and The Island at the Center of the World

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Generally speaking, academic historians are trained to argue a thesis based on evidence, while journalists are trained to discover, analyze, and report information. In the case of the two works of popular history that I discuss in this article the roles are somewhat reversed. The scholarly historians Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace present a chronological series of narratives and facts resulting in a comprehensive historical synthesis in their Pulitzer-Prize winning 1383-page book “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898”. The journalist and author Russell Shorto argues that the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam on Manhattan island was the true foundation of modern liberalism in American society in his 416-page book “The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America”.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The popular reviews of both works are generally positive and enthusiastic about their ability to popularize New York City history. The academic reviews however, view The Island at the Center of the World as providing an entertaining narrative but a flawed argument. The academic reviews praise Gotham as an entertaining and comprehensive synthesis while criticism of a lack of a central narrative or thesis and the absence of discussion of evidence is minimal and qualified. The reviews of these works show how readers can be led astray by popular histories that are entertaining but not up to the standards of scholarly historians, but also how a history book can both appeal to a popular audience and also convey information based on sound scholarship. The reviews demonstrate that there is a difference between getting the public to care about history and to understand it.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In the American Historical Review, historian David C. Hammack praises Gotham for demonstrating the “classic virtues of narrative” and for not shying away from discussing important topics such as European violence against Native Americans and male violence against women. In The Journal of American History, historian Edward K. Spann calls Gotham a “truly classic work, concisely and beautifully written”. Hammack’s main criticisms are the omission of discussion of evidence and the exaggeration of the importance of some facts. However, Hammack writes that these problems are part of how Gotham successfully presents New York City history in a “extended and colorful narrative”. Spann criticizes Gotham for lacking a central thesis, but also admits that the authors intentionally focused on narrative in order to provide a “fascinating show of many acts”.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In The Journal of American History, historian Paul Otto praises The Island at the Center of the World for providing an engaging and popularizing narrative. Otto however, criticizes Shorto for not properly evaluating bias in sources and for exaggerating the importance of Adriaen van der Donck who is a central part of the book. Otto also challenges the central argument that the Dutch colony was the foundation of American liberalism and broader American values such as “tolerance, openness, and free trade”. Otto claims that while there were some liberal aspects of seventeenth century New Amsterdam, Shorto does not establish a connection between those aspects and more recent developments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Also, in the scholarly journal New York History, historian Joyce Goodfriend praises The Island at the Center of the World for providing an entertaining plot, for delving into primary sources, and for challenging the overwhelming “Anglophilia” that permeates the narrative of American history. On the topic of the book’s main argument however, Goodfriend criticizes Shorto for “smoothing over” less flattering historical topics such as the Dutch role in the slave trade and instances of religious intolerance in the colony of New Netherland. Overall, Goodfriend calls Shorto’s main argument an “unwarranted conceptual leap” that erroneously links the diversity of New Amsterdam with modern ideals of pluralism.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The popular reviews of the two works do not vary so much in their criticism as do the scholarly. The popular reviews generally provide praise for both. In The New York Times Book Review, author and journalist Kevin Baker praises The Island at the Center of the World as a captivating work with fascinating historical “tidbits”, humor, and a powerful central argument. Baker calls, “undeniable”, Shorto’s central argument that the tolerance of New Amsterdam influenced the development of the entire nation. Also from the New York Times, journalist Clyde Haberman praises Gotham for containing a wealth of facts and perspectives, but also criticizes it for being a “serious reference work” that can overwhelm a reader. Haberman also writes that while Gotham does not contain a groundbreaking thesis, it does carry important themes about the development of New York City.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Looking at the popular and scholarly reviews of these two works shows a clear discrepancy. The scholarly reviewers are able to offer a challenge to Shorto’s argument that does not seem to be present in the popular reviews. There could hardly be more of a contrast between an argument being “undeniable” and being an “unwarranted conceptual leap”. The popular reviews also show that The Island at the Center of the World may have a popular edge over Gotham in the form of a central plot and argument. While there is clearly praise for Gotham’s wealth of information and narrative vignettes, it is conceivable that a book of over 1000 pages without a unifying thesis could be overwhelming to a public or any audience. It’s style of many interesting narratives though can certainly have an appeal.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 One does not need to look into New York colonial history very long to discover the prevalence of an argument similar to the one Shorto makes. I have seen it in documentaries and heard it repeated by several individuals. It is tempting to accept the narrative that the Dutch in New Netherland were central in the larger development of American society in relation to such influential themes as pluralism and liberalism. The academic reviews however, show that the narrative is not that simple and that the argument may resemble more of a myth. Historians who seek to popularize New York colonial history should be aware of this argument and give it proper attention, however they should also explore other avenues for finding meaning in the area’s colonial past.


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